I have shared my views on Britishness previously, here and in a slightly festive slant here. More recently, rather than wallowing in my own thought vacuum, I have had the pleasure of leading a course, which allowed me to spend time with other teachers discussing that most juicy of questions: what does it mean to be British?
The course has developed my thinking as much as it hopefully developed that of the teachers in attendance, and the most exciting ‘take-away point’ I got from the sessions was that if I was to run exactly the same course in any other part of Britain, I would be discussing a different Britishness each time. Here, I am going to vent, and this can be considered my Opinions 2.0 post.
The Structure of the Day
The session maintained two strands – one being the ‘Fundamental British Values’ and the other being the wider question of what it means to be British. The hope was that by the end of the day teachers would be clued up as to what exactly the FBV are, with regards to the DfE documents, and would have a clear understanding of the kinds of activities that promote them. In addition, I wanted the delegates to engage in critical discussion and reflective writing tasks on the theme of identities – I shared activities that I have completed with my own pupils, to emphasise the point that perhaps, if we are going to achieve anything like a culturally cohesive curriculum, we need to have the confidence to ask challenging questions of our children, and tackle questions of belonging, migration, national identity and indeed racism, head on. The cherry on top was an hour spent working with my pupils, in which the delegates teamed up with my Year 5 pupils to prepare debate motions like ‘This House Believes Britain is full’ and ‘This House Believes Everyone In Britain Must Speak English’.
It also contained a lot of tea breaks, because Britishness.
A Political Hot Potato
Given that the course was taking place on Friday the 8th May, we all arrived to a new political landscape with the final election results still dribbling in. We all knew the Tories were in on a majority, by that point, and whenever the election was mentioned, it was generally with a slightly stunned tone. Given that UKIP and in fact all major parties ended up making immigration a key part of their campaigns, the nature of who is and is not British felt dangerously timely.
We looked at what different party leaders have said about Britishness, and explained it as a ‘political hot potato’. Some blank hot potatoes were then given out to the delegates, and they became our name badges for our awkward ‘Meet and Greet’.
The DfE Documents on FBV
I thought a deep and critical reading would be a good way to start. We all picked apart the DfE guidance on fundamental British values. Whilst encouraging a deep reading simply to familiarise ourselves with the FBV, I wanted a more questioning reading of the document around the following prompts.
- WHY WAS THE DOCUMENT WRITTEN?
- WHAT ARE THE DESIRED OUTCOMES OF THE PROMOTION OF ‘FBV’?
- WHAT IDEAS OF BRITISHNESS DOES THE DOCUMENT PROMOTE?
My own view is that, as teachers, we often have to be very pragmatic. We are sometimes presented with a demand or imperative which is disagreeable and end up having to do it anyway. I think that the document is flawed in many ways, but that if approached sensitively – and with a critical eye – it can be addressed in a way which is beneficial to the children. Like so many things we argue about in education, an instinctive reaction might not be the most useful – most things can be made more effective by being implemented and embedded thoughtfully.
The delegates discussed the reasons for the document being written and the issue of ‘the unspoken’ was being raised. It seems like the whole document is trying desperately not to mention what is probably its central point – the fear that there are people growing up in our society with a contradictory set of values to ‘our own’ (though Rich Farrow has neatly exposed the hypocrisy of this here), and the unspoken awareness that those people are Muslims. The timing of the document was off the back of the Trojan Horse scandal, and it can be considered alongside the ‘Prevent’ agenda.
It became quickly obvious that much of what the document was proposing was already being done in our schools. We were left thinking ‘What the hell do they think we do already, if this needs to be said?’ This only added to the sense that the explicit intentions of the document might be concealing an implicit intention; perhaps a desire to combat the burgeoning of views that are different to ‘our own’ with regards citizenship, nation and identity. I have no problem with seeking to curb ‘religious extremism’ if it is putting children and young people at risk, but it will need to be done explicitly and openly and with due process, not through an ill-defined move to promote an ill-defined Britishness to an ill-defined group.
We moved on to look at what it means to be British, and took stereotypes as a starting point. It is easy to write stereotypes off as jokes, but when masses of people share particular views about a group of people, that necessarily impacts the group identity. Our group of delegates had a discussion then threw all of our ideas together. Ones that I remember, as stereotypes of Britishness, included ‘Deckchairs and Hankies, Tea-Drinking, Queueing, Apologising, Hugh Grant, Alcohol Consumption, A Love of Football and Getting sunburn on holidays.
Tea-drinking was picked out as a key stereotype which we could all agree on. Other stereotypes seemed more applicable to some sections of British society than others. Alcohol, for example, is a prohibition which the majority of Musllims steer clear of, yet it forms a key stereotype of British behaviour (see Farage). Similarly, although football is played by all sorts of kids in schools, the ‘culture of football’ is not one which is evenly spread across all cultural groups and social class groups in society.
Then we looked at Professor Elemental’s ‘I’m British’ because he is great (and visited Elmhurst last year)
Reflecting on Identity
After a tea break, we began looking more at the idea of identity. Different people identify differently, and we discussed our school contexts. When I discussed the idea of ‘multiculturalism’ with my pupils, who are overwhelmingly first and second generation South Asian Muslims, the majority of children defined themselves as British and ____, for example British and Pakistani, or Pakistani and British, or Indian and British, or British Indian or British Muslim. Many did, but other children added different views. One of my pupils – of Eastern European origin – suggested that he doesn’t want to become more British because that means he becomes ‘less’ of his other nationality. He pointed to the fact that ‘becoming more British’ makes him more different from his family.
I encouraged my children, after spending a week looking at multiple identities and cultural hybridity (looking at how cultures mix to produce new things), to produce a piece of extended writing. I gave each child a writing frame filled with questions, and they needed to complete a certain amount from each section before moving onto the next paragraph. This structured them into a more essayistic style, and allowed me to support my pupils who struggle with writing, whilst allowing those more capable to knuckle down and fill the page.
I found this frame to be effective and so decided, to make the point, I would ask the delegates to use it to produce their own reflective essay. After doing so, I shared some of my pupils’ writing. They, just like the delegates, had no modelling other than the question prompts.
In the afternoon, we started off by looking again the the Fundamental British Values, and started throwing ideas around about how we could produce activites to address each value from different primary subject approaches, such as Humanities, RE, Literacy and the Creative Arts. This was valuable and showed, I think, how easy it is to address FBV in an explicit but superficial way in the primary curriculum. My view was that FBV are generally being covered anyway by most decent schools with a coherent approach to PSHE / SEAL / SMSC / Citizenship, and that if we are wanting to actually promote a sense of ‘Britishness’, we would be better off explicitly exploring issues of community, religious diversity, migration, islamophobia, nationalism and racism.
If Britishness is just shoehorned into an otherwise monocultural or uncritical curriculum, all it will amount to is a rise in the erection of flag poles in primary classrooms, and the national anthem being played. Like FBV, nationalism can be promoted easily, but it can easily become superficial and actually damaging to social cohesion. I am working at the moment with a headteacher of a majority white school in the North of England who is seeking guidance on how to approach Britishness to promote an appreciation of diversity, despite living in a largely monocultural area.
The biggest barrier to approaching difficult questions such as belonging, diversity, equality, migration and racism in the primary classroom is very often our own anxiety about a loss of control, about being misinterpreted as racially or culturally insensitive or a fear of stoking up parental dissatisfaction. There are real friction points, which are difficult to manage. Religious freedom is a fundamental right, protected even by the FBV, yet when we are needing to promote the visibility of LGBT rights and families, for example, it becomes a difficult conversation to manage. I myself am guilty of shying away from these discussions because of my own precarious positioning on this – in that way, I can understand why some teachers may shy away from asking the questions and teaching the lessons that need to be taught. I can understand it, but I guess my view is that if prejudices are unaddressed, we cannot be surprised when they ferment into something more damaging – this applies to white superiority, religious extremism, racism, misogyny, homophobia and islamophobia.
The final part of the day focused on the power of debating as a teaching strategy which can be used in the humanities. The children who wrote the reflective essays joined us in the training session, and the delegates had the opportunity to chat with pupils about what they had written. Children could explain in more detail, and my kids enjoyed chatting about their views with people who showed a deep interest.
After this, I shared some debate motions and the children worked with the delegates to prepare both the proposition and opposition points on the following debate motions.
In our school, debating is deeply embedded and it is something we have been doing for close to a decade now. The children recognise that debate motions are meant to be contentious, so whilst the delegates may have flinched, the children recognised the conventions of debate are the perfect outlet to flesh out controversial questions. The children and delegates produced a range of points over five minutes, then the kids jumped up to do some very short-notice sample debating.
I find debating to be one of many different effective approaches to contextualise mature discussion, which would allow us to cover issues such as Britishness and identity in a way which is manageable for teachers and beneficial for pupils.
I found it invigorating to spend a day discussing what it means to be British, and what this means for schools, with a group of educators who themselves represented a range of different backgrounds, cultures and heritages. The FBV agenda is flawed and reactive, but it can be turned into something that might actually promote cohesion if done correctly. Discussions need to be had – shying away from questions will perpetuate the systematic silences which breed division. As one of the delegates said, during a period of training that was filled with awkwardness as we discussed whether Britishness is a white concept, ‘Sometimes we are being so ‘British’ about things that we can’t discuss Britishness.’ Occasionally, many of us are so keen not to be insensitive that we do something much worse, which is to say nothing. When nothing is said by those who might want to address the issues, the voices that get heard are those which are not engaging in debate but are defending ideological positions.
We can celebrate difference whilst still fostering and promoting a shared set of values.
This is something that we can do with our pupils in a way that is enriching, sensitive and empowering.
It is good to talk about Britishness.